Scottish independence would open the way for constitutional reform

Scottish independence would spell the end of Great Britain. The UK would live on, but would need to be radically re-defined and re-designed. Constitutional reformers should grasp the opportunity presented by Scotland’s possible departure from the Union would open the doors to large-scale constitutional reform
David Rickard
9 May 2011

Scottish independence would not necessarily mean the end of the United Kingdom, but it would be the end of Britain: as a polity, an idea and a would-be nation. Britain, as such, exists only because of Scotland’s participation in the Union; indeed, the name of ‘Britain’ is what enables the Union to be conceptualised and imagined as a true union or marriage, in which the Two – England and Scotland – have come together to form One: a new, integral entity that is greater than the sum of its parts.

At least, historically, this is arguably why the creators of the then ‘Kingdom of Great Britain’ in 1707 felt compelled to coin the term, rather than simply calling the new state the ‘United Kingdom of England and Scotland’. That would have felt too much like an annexation of Scotland to England in much the same way as the formation of the ‘United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland’ felt like an annexation to many Irish patriots nearly one hundred years later.

If, then, Scotland departs from the Union, there is no more Great Britain, and all pretensions of British nationhood fall away. But the / a United Kingdom could remain, albeit perhaps renamed the ‘United Kingdom of England, Wales and Northern Ireland’. So Tim Luckhurst was wrong when he suggested in a discussion on Radio Four’s ‘Today’ programme today that all UK citizens should have a say on Scottish independence in a referendum because Scottish independence would mean the end of the UK, which Luckhurst regards as his ‘nation’. He is not wrong in suggesting the need for a UK-wide referendum but is wrong in asserting that the UK would be broken up by Scottish independence: it’s Britain that would be finished, but the UK could continue in a new form.

And it’s the need to re-define the UK, and re-design its constitution and structures of governance, that should be seized upon by constitutional reformers as a great opportunity presented by the prospect and process of Scottish secession. Indeed, this could be the occasion for a radical re-design of the constitution that reformers have been longing for. For starters, Parliament would have to be completely overhauled. Just as the idea of a unitary ‘Britain’ is designed to suppress the thought that the UK is really England plus its ‘Celtic’ appendages, so the stubborn holding on to the idea that the UK parliament remains integrally British even when so many of its powers and actions relate to England only is designed to suppress the idea that Parliament is really an English parliament: that it has always been so and should honestly re-style itself as such if it is to be a truly democratic forum for England on a par with the parliament and assemblies for the UK’s other nations.

If the UK were to become the ‘United Kingdom of England, Wales and N. Ireland’ – if Scotland departs and the need for a unitary ‘Britain’ and its parliament fades away – there would be a golden opportunity to craft a new federal UK. Civic English nationalists such as myself would rather the new UK was a federation of nations, including perhaps an autonomous Cornwall; while many liberal reformers would rather see a regional model of governance applied to England. But we could at least have the argument along with many other arguments, such as how to evolve the Lords into a federal parliament (dealing with reserved UK matters)-cum-revising chamber for the national / regional parliaments; a written constitution; the monarchy and the Church; proportional representation; a new Bill of Rights; a referendum on the new state’s membership of the EU; etc.

And a referendum on the formation of the new UK state. Tim Luckhurst was right in this respect: the citizens of the remaining UK do have a right to a referendum on whether they accept the existing or new UK constitutional settlement resulting from the absence of Scotland; on whether they consent to be a United Kingdom of semi-autonomous nations once the dream of a unitary British nation is finally no more.

In reality, at least two referendums would be required: a Scotland-only referendum, organised by the SNP-majority Scottish government, on the principle of independence; and a UK-wide referendum on the proposed new constitutional / national settlement, which is something that logically affects all citizens of the existing UK in a similar way. This is because if there is a Yes vote in Scotland on the principle of independence, there would then need to be negotiations between the UK and Scottish governments on the terms for separation. An integral part of this whole process would be working out the identity, constitution and governance of the new UK; and this is the point at which the case for a radical re-casting of the UK can be pressed.

At the very least, it is natural justice – and may in any case be legally required – for all UK citizens to say whether they are content with the terms of Scottish independence as proposed in the Scotland Independence Bill (or whatever it would be called) and with the identity of the resultant UK state, even if the kind of radical constitutional re-design many wish to see has not come about by the time Scotland departs. And it’s just as fair that Scottish residents should also have the choice of whether to belong to the existing or re-designed United Kingdom as an alternative to the agreed independence deal.

So the prospect of a process leading towards Scottish independence should be grasped by reformers as perhaps their biggest opportunity to radically re-shape the UK. Perhaps Unionists, too, should engage in serious deliberation about what sort of UK they would wish to see outlast Great Britain. In fact, an attractive, federal UK with a written constitution and genuinely accountable government could be the biggest chance to prevent Scotland from leaving the Union.

But Unionists might have to accept that ‘Britain’ be sacrificed in order to set England and Scotland free to become the nations that Great Britain has not allowed them to be.

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